Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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STUDY leave

I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter (@rg7878) my gratitude to the leadership of the church I pastor for granting me a week of study leave. That lead to a conversation with my sister last night in which she assumed that I was taking a week off relaxing at home.

Un, no. That’s not quite it.

Pastoral ministry happens in the course of life – through God’s work in my own life and through my day by day interaction and involvement in the lives and struggles and questions of others. Depth in pastoral ministry comes from study and reflection and prayer. I read recently of John Piper challenging pastors to get away and study, and suggesting that most congregations do not really understand the amount of emotional and mental and creative energy it requires to prepare sermons week after week after week. John Stott in his “Reflections of an Octogenarian” challenges pastors to set aside one hour/day, one day/month, and one week/year to isolate oneself for study. Bill Gates used a similar strategy to keep himself sharp when the head of Microsoft.

I like to joke with the seminary students who attend our church (Reformed Theological Seminary is two miles away) when they are complaining about writing a paper that they are pursuing a ‘career’ which will require writing a 4000-5000 word essay WEEKLY, due every Sunday at a particular hour, and there is no possibility for submitting it late. There is never enough time in a week to prepare a good sermon. Some of that preparation has to happen ahead of time. A week for study allows for some of that.

“Study” for the pastor, however, is not merely a book discipline. A congregation has a right to expect that the person who challenges them regarding the things of God is himself actively pursuing and nurturing a vital relationship with Him. That can get lost in the busy moment by moment pressure of ministry. A study leave provides some extended time to address one’s walk with God.

All of this is an argument for the idea of the pastoral sabbatical so eloquently plead by Eugene Petersonand others. But at the least it is an argument for pastors occasionally getting away from the routine to invest time in these valuable activities which are sometimes otherwise squeezed out or simply impossible.

So, no, Jeanne, I’m not spending the week at home. Rather, I’m holed up in a conference room at the hospitable Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, Florida. I can invest three, six, nine hours of uninterrupted time on a single project if need be (yesterday, it was long range sermon planning). I have stripped my calendar of appointments and meetings, and I have someone else preaching for me on Sunday. This allows me to invest time in other things.

Still on the agenda are books to be read, worship services to be pondered, and even some software to learn to use better and more efficiently. And if I use the time correctly, there will be significant time spent talking to God and staring off into space thinking, reflecting, and dreaming.

So, if you will, pray that God would bless this week and give me the uninterrupted time I need.


“Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.” (from Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper)

Thank You, Dr. Chapell

I was leading a training session yesterday afternoon for a group of seminary students attending our church who were preparing to assume some responsibility in worship leadership. In the course of the training, I commended highly Bryan Chapell‘s Christ-Centered Worship.

After the students noted that the book was among the recommended reading in their worship class at the seminary and Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching required for their preaching classes, one of them, our worship team leader, said, “You told me to read the worship book as soon as you got here.”

I didn’t remember doing that, but then another said, “You told me to read a Chapell book last year as well.” (He was referring to Holiness by Grace.)

They all began to wonder if I got a kickback.

I don’t.

But all pastor’s are book pushers. I’m grateful for the good and rich and solid resources God has brought to our lives through Dr. Chapell’s ministry. I happily push them!


I’m working on a sermon in which a beloved brother dies, and the One who could have kept him alive and could have saved them the hurt and suffering delays in a seemingly callous way. We wonder where God is in our suffering, but often we don’t have to wonder where people are. They tell us, when maybe they shouldn’t.

I was reminded of a very wise, very short song by Charlie Peacock.

Now is the time for tears
Don’t speak
Save your words
There’s nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don’t try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don’t try to fix me friend
That’s how you’ll comfort me

Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears

On the Reading Desk: Practice

Yesterday, I outlined my goals for reading – the “whys” behind what I do. Below are the books which currently fill out that outline.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, referred to already here.

The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer.


At this point I have tried to link several works which have been sitting on my shelf into something of a ‘Christian Life’ theme. Some will see the threads connecting these works. Thus far, this has been very fruitful.

Theology: The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Practical: Surprised by Hope and After You Believe, both by N. T. Wright.

Professional: God’s Empowering Presence by Gordon Fee and Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace.

Historical: Calvin by Bruce Gordon.

My categories can be critiqued, but this is just a snapshot and a snapshot does not always catch things perfectly arrayed. I hope to be able to say something about each of these works as the days progress.

It is safe to say that I do not read enough. However, without the plan I have, I would read far less, and be that much more deprived. I’m grateful for then, the encouragement to set forth a plan.

On the Reading Desk: Theory

In general I like to be reading several books at once. My reading can be broken up into two general groups, ‘personal’ and ‘professional,’ but being a pastor the two cannot be so easily divided as perhaps they might be if I were, say, a civil engineer. Often what I read on the personal side has profound implications for what I believe, preach, or teach, and what I read on the professional side moves me and effects how I live my personal life. It’s a wonderful place to be.

I think it important to separate what I’m calling here my professional reading from my labor to produce sermons and classes. They may overlap, but the reading I’m speaking of here is reading that is designed primarily to feed me spiritually and professionally. That sounds on the one hand a selfish thing. But for a church to have a pastor who himself is spiritually deprived and whose vision is limited by the trials and struggles of his own situation is never good. It is a wise church that encourages its pastor to invest time in his own growth and maturity.

The temptation will be for a pastor to read what is currently creating a stir. Sometimes the stir is so great that I give in, but generally I let the fads pass. Rather, I try to steer my reading in four directions, listed here in no order of priority:

1. Professional

2. Practical

3. Historical

4. Theological

There is much written that is designed to help pastors do the varied tasks that are before them. Topics may concern preaching or counseling or leadership or the nature of the church. One could be consumed and read nothing but these things. Or one could think one is above all of that and neglect what is helpful. Neither option is good.

Secondly, I am of a reflective and contemplative nature. It is important that I read works which direct my thinking toward the practical nature of the Christian life – books on marriage, on sanctification, on evangelism, on idolatry, or the like.

Thirdly, there is much to be learned from the saints who have come before us. General history or biography are important in keeping me grounded with a well rounded sense of where we have come from.

And fourthly, it can be too easy for a pastor to narrow his reading to his own area of theological interest. To counter that, I always have some work of general theology on the list to be worked through.

And I should add, I will now and then read something that just seems fun, or which seems aimed at a hole in my heart. Appetite can lead to wonderfully nourishing meals.

This is my thinking. Tomorrow, specifics.

Of Precious Brownies and Tire Swings

Life is out of sync, so things I may have wanted to say weeks ago are only now being said. Forgive me, therefore, if this post seems painfully out of date.

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The joy of coming to know students was one of the great privileges of ministry in the Bradenton/Sarasota area. In addition to the commuter based State College of Florida and the Sarasota campus of the University of South Florida, there are three small but prominent residential schools: Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ringling College of Art and Design, and New College of Florida. Students we have met from each school have become friends we will treasure forever. And of all the expressions of gratitude we received before leaving Bradenton, two from students were especially touching.

For the past year, I had the delight of meeting with a few students from New College for prayer every Friday morning. This was nothing dramatic, and the crowd was always small. But the time was something I looked forward to every week.

On the last day of prayer for the semester, and the last Friday that I would be in Bradenton, having accepted the call to Oviedo, the students made me brownies and a cake. I was expecting nothing and looking for nothing. But this was something.

The brownies may not have meant much to the students – they apologized for their quality. But as they were a gift to me from the heart of these students, they were the most precious brownies I ever ate.

Thanks, guys!

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One of the friends we have made is Jenny, a graduate of Ringling still living in the area. Having artists as friends has its unique charms.

In a sermon preached not too long before I left Bradenton, I made reference to the tire swing behind our house and that our ‘faith’ in the rope is what enables us to put our weight in the tire.

Before leaving, then, Jenny presented me with this drawing in her own gentle style. The inscription, if you cannot read it, says, “Faith is like a tire swing.”

Thanks, Jenny.

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I was touched by both gifts, and many others which came our way. To all, please know, you have showered upon us evidences of God’s grace to those who don’t deserve it.

We are humbled and glad.


Installation Service

Time is moving faster than I am right now. Following my last Sunday at Hope Presbyterian Church in Bradenton, Florida, we walked with our daughter through her graduation from high school and hosted an open house for her attended by over 60 people.

At the same time, we played host to our son and daughter-in-law who are between residences, and to a friend from Los Angeles. Then for a week, we had the absolute delight of camping a week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with family and friends (at the end, 35 people at one point or another).

Immediately thereafter, I took part in the wedding of a dear friend. And NOW we can concentrate on packing up our house to ready it for the move to Oviedo and my new pastorate at Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Warning to parishioners of that church: Your new pastor is functioning right now at about 20% brain energy. Prepare for him to be a bit sluggish upon arrival!

In a presbyterian church, new pastors are installed in a solemn ceremony overseen by representatives of other local churches, that is, by the ‘presbytery’. The installation service represents a new relationship between pastor and church, and for both something of a new beginning. I’m really excited about this, and would love for any who are readers of this blog who happen to be in or near Oviedo to join us for this service.

The service is scheduled for 5:00 PM, Sunday, June 6, and will be held in the chapel of Reformed Theological Seminary (map below). I’m thrilled that most (if not all) of my children will be able to be there and I’m excited by the possibilities that this new opportunity represents. I hope to see many of you.

Second Hardest Job in the World

As far as pastors’ wives go, I have a good one. I always thank God for her.

A month ago when this column was published in the local newspaper I heard from several pastors thanking me for the content. Consistent with their stories was something like this, “My wife saw this in the paper and clipped it out for me.”

I could not help but notice is that it was a wife looking out for her husband. Which then impelled me to put down in writing some thoughts about pastors’ wives which I have found consistent over the years.

Here is the link to the article. But since the link will not remain active, I am posting the content below.

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A friend who speaks at conferences in all kinds of churches used to tell me that pastoring the local church was the hardest job in the world. I don’t know. Those trying to contain the gulf oil spill might put up a good counter-argument, as might many others.

Recently he told me that he had changed his mind and elevated single motherhood to the top spot. We note with honor such women this Mother’s Day weekend. This is a wise adjustment.

Married male pastors, however, know they can’t lay claim to second place. That ‘honor’ belongs to the often thankless role assumed by their wives.

The ‘job’ of pastor’s wife comes with no job description, no pay, and plenty of unwritten expectations from church and husband. She is to lead, teach, and be outgoing. She is to do anything and be at everything. And she is to have perfect children.

Some avoid these expectations, but there is a weight she carries that cannot be avoided.

When pastors struggle with pastoral issues, it is the wife who watches, often helplessly. When he comes home enveloped in the dark cloud of concern for the flock, she sees. Concern for confidentiality prevents his letting her in. She can do nothing.

When others aim criticism at her husband, the arrows strike her heart, too. Other wives might find comfort in the body of the church, a balm often denied the pastor’s wife, who cannot share with other women her concern for her husband.

When someone leaves a church, the pastor is often the focus of that decision. Though those leaving may maintain relationships with others in the church, the pastor is often cut off. The wife becomes collateral damage and can grow fearful of pouring her heart into the next relationship for fear of it being crushed all over again. Many minister out of a broken heart.

Her role is not all heartache. There is much joy. Even those capping oil wells get to go for a swim in exotic waters. Most pastor’s wives would not change ‘jobs’ for another. So don’t cry for her. Pray for her.

Love her. Encourage her.

This may not be the hardest job in the world, or even the second. But if there is a list of unseen and under-appreciated jobs, “pastor’s wife” will certainly lurk about the top.

Heaven Is Not Your Home

I encourage all Christians to listen and give attention to this message by Dr. Richard Pratt:

Heaven Is Not Your Home

This was delivered to a gathering of the Central Florida Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. I am not sure when, and I’m not sure how it came into my possession. However, it is a significant expression of the truth that what God is doing, and therefore what WE are to be doing, extends beyond personal salvation. It includes personal salvation, but is so much broader than that.

Meditative reflection upon the nature of the kingdom that Christ is building will impact how we see and direct our own efforts in ministry. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Give it a listen.

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This message is posted with the permission of Third Millennium Ministries, of which Dr. Pratt is the founder and president.

Why Am I Here?

The story below is from a publication of Mission to the World, the mission sending arm of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is written by Lyn Newbrander who writes it concerning a time when she and her husband were living and working in the Netherlands. I share it here partly for its honesty, and partly for its encouragement.

But I share it as well because of what I call the ‘Gospel Blimp Syndrome’– the idea that real outreach and real missions and real evangelism occurs only when we are in somebody’s face preaching at them. More likely than not, it is not proclamation which softens hearts to the gospel, but incarnation. This story warmly illustrates that.

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“Why Am I Here?”

I was having a rainy KLM day. You know those days: get on the first KLM flight back to America and ditch the whole thing. I lifted three-year-old David off my bike and unloaded groceries from the saddle bags. Wet and loaded down, we faced the long trek up our 48 stairs, with David practicing, “St-ep, st-ep, st-ep.”

Life with three small children in Amsterdam was full of mommying, juggling groceries on bikes, and transporting kids to Dutch kindergarten. Why was I here, anyway? Between diapers, I’d somehow learned the language well, even speaking Dutch when people spoke English to me. But there weren’t a lot of people lining up at my door, wondering (in Dutch) why my life was so incredibly joy-filled.

As I set David down at the table for his lunch of peanut butter on whole wheat, the bell rang. It was Margaretha from across the hall. Soon after we had moved in, we met unexpectedly. When she came home from the hospital after a high-risk pregnancy, I ran down the stairs and immediately jumped in: “I’m-your-neighbor-shall-I-take- the-baby-up-for-you?” Barely waiting for an answer, I flitted up the 4 flights, set the baby in his seat by their door, and dashed back down, late to get David from school. Margaretha later told me that she felt as though an angel suddenly appeared, swooped up the baby, and dashed down, adding, “Baby’s at the door! Welcome home! Bye!”

Over time, a friendship developed. Margaretha helped me with my Dutch, comforted me during my 19 weeks of bed rest (she knew!), and we left a “baby phone” with each other when running a quick errand while children napped.

Today, I opened the door to Margaretha, still feeling discouraged. “What’s the matter, Lyn?” she asked. By this time, Margaretha knew I was a missionary, and since she had grown up in the church, she might understand.

“I’m just discouraged. You know, Margaretha, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I could be back home, doing all of the same things with much more ease, in my own language, close to my family. I just wish I could pack up and go home. There really isn’t any point to my being here.”

Margaretha told me something I will never forget: “You know, Lyn. It took an American coming to Holland to make me feel at home in my own country. I don’t know about all those other things you wish you could do, but I thank God that He sent you here just for me.”

Tears filled my eyes. Was one Dutch friend across the hall worth all the time and effort in support raising and in learning the language? I laughed, knowing the answer. Obviously, God thought that Margaretha was worth my sacrifices—and His.

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